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Let’s embrace uncertainty to tackle systemic problems

Julian Corner is Chief Executive of Lankelly Chase Foundation where he has led a major shift in its focus towards changing the systems that perpetuate severe and multiple disadvantage. Julian has significant experience in both the civil service and the voluntary sector.

He helped create the first national prisoner rehabilitation strategy in the Home Office, and led the criminal justice and mental health charity Revolving Doors Agency. He is currently Chair of the pioneering East End settlement Toynbee Hall.


Many charities, my own included, have ambitious visions for change. In reality, we have little control over the factors that will lead to them. The change we seek rarely comes in the form we expect, and often arises from unlikely places. Yet we map out our theories of change as if we were embarking on predictable terrain…

For Lankelly Chase, a theory of change is just that, a theory. It’s not the truth. It summarises, as far as we are conscious of them, the ideas and assumptions that underlie and shape our decisions. In a complex world, it feels healthiest to think of a theory of change as a set of plausible, and hopefully testable, hypotheses. If these turn out to be wrong or insufficient then we junk or improve them.

We quickly realised that our theory of change was being widely interpreted as just another way of setting out our grant criteria.

We first developed a theory of change because we wanted to be open and honest about the fact that we have a point of view about how change happens. We wanted to be explicit that our perspective is partial and needs to be challenged and widened. Our intention was to set out the basis for dialogue with potential partners.

We quickly realised that our theory of change was being widely interpreted as just another way of setting out our grant criteria. Most people didn’t debate it with us, they tried to demonstrate how they fitted into it. Of course, this reflects the power inequality between foundations and other charities and our own need to manage that much better. It also speaks to something that a lot of us experience: the compulsion to seem more confident and certain about things than we feel.

Many charities speak about a pressure to prove they can bring about change before they have even started. Their theories of change become proofs ahead of the fact. When you consider that many charities approach foundations because they are either too small to get statutory and public support or are struggling to get new ideas off the ground then you start to see how unfair this pressure is.

Small charities, like all organisations, are  players in a  larger interconnected whole. The change they desire emerges from the behaviour of that whole, not from one small part of it. So asking charities to attribute the change to their actions alone is not just unrealistic, it encourages a siloed mindset in a situation that calls for collaboration.

Legitimising uncertainty

Charities trying to get new ideas off the ground are similarly part of an interconnected whole. They can’t possibly know what effects their intended intervention will trigger among the other parts. Asking them to spell out, and then stick to, a linear causal chain between their actions and desired change risks closing down the very behaviour we need to grow: curiosity.

In situations of complexity—which is where many charities operate—exploration and enquiry are how we avoid practice ossifying, interests becoming vested, and insights becoming dogmas. Learning, adaptation and change aren’t going to come from doubling down on our certainties. They will come from us feeling safe enough to admit to and share the incompleteness of our perspectives.

Perhaps foundations should support the development of collaborative theories of change that reflect the interconnectedness of the whole system.

As the oft quoted Leonard Cohen lyric goes, ‘There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in’. Independent funders are well placed to seek out these cracks and help open them up. For example, if we do ask for a theory of change, we could view this as a means of encouraging openness about the uncertainties we all feel when confronted with complexity. Legitimising uncertainty is a gift that funders can give along with their money.

The trickier part is that many of these cracks exist between the organisations that foundations fund, in the interrelation between them and their environment. This suggests that we should be just as, if not more, focused on these interrelations as we are on the parts. In which case, I am left wondering if it makes sense for single organisations each to develop its own theory of change. Perhaps foundations should support the development of collaborative theories of change that reflect the interconnectedness of the whole system.

By sharing and debating our uncertainties in this way, we could start to shift how we use a theory of change, from a product designed to bolster our impact credentials to a process of continual unfolding and discovery. This is why Lankelly Chase was keen to support NPC’s ambition to draw together their influential work on theory of change and systems change. The result, Thinking big, sets out five ‘rules of thumb’ each of which introduces more openness and even vulnerability into the process. Together, these have the potential to promote a radically different dialogue between charities and the funders that support them, based on an appreciation that they are each contributing to something much bigger than themselves.

Download the report and join the conversation on social media with #SystemsChange 

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